Emotional Support Animals Present Conflicts for Psychologists

Cassie Boness
Jordan Yount
News Source: 
College of Arts & Science
Psychological Sciences

 We are accustomed to seeing a person with a disability accompanied by a service animal—a dog—that helps that person navigate daily life. Service animals are recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as animals trained to serve a specific disability-related function, such as a seeing-eye dog for someone with vision problems. Lately, however, a growing number of people are asking mental health professionals to certify “emotional support animals,” which are not recognized by the ADA and have little to no specific training. Cassie Boness, a graduate student in clinical psychology in the Department of Psychological Sciences, says these requests for certification for emotional support animals present several potential conflicts for mental health professionals.

“There are no standards for evaluating the need for an emotional support animal, whereas there are concrete rules to determine if someone is eligible for a service animal,” Boness says. “These emotional support animal letters are formal certifications of psychological disability, and the psychotherapist is stating, by writing such a letter, that the person needing the emotional support animal has such a disability and that the presence of the animal addresses that disability.”

Service Animals versus Emotional Support Animals

Although emotional support animals can be pets, they are not considered pets under the law, and special accommodations must be afforded to individuals who need emotional support animals to assist them psychologically. For example, housing that prohibits pets must allow emotional support animals and waive any fees or pet deposits. The Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines to allow service animals and emotional support animals to accompany their handlers in the main cabin of an aircraft.

“Part of the reason this is becoming problematic is that service animals are highly trained, so when they are brought into public spaces they do not cause problems,” Boness says. “But emotional support animals can be certified through an online process, and they can be someone’s pet. People have taken their pet pigs onto airplanes, and there have even been emotional support snakes and turkeys. The growing use of emotional support animals tends to discredit the use of service animals, which is where much of the tension comes from since people do not understand the difference.”

She says mental health professionals who certify emotional support animals also face potential legal ramifications. If a pet owner asks a psychologist to certify a dog as an emotional support animal, which would allow the pet in the owner’s apartment, and then that pet bites a child, the psychologist might have to go to court to defend her decision to write the certification letter if the landlord challenges it. Boness says the lack of scientific guidelines regarding emotional support animals would make it difficult for the psychologist to defend her certification letter in court.

For now, Boness recommends that therapeutic psychologists—those who treat patients—do not issue certifications to their patients for emotional support animals. Instead, they should refer those services to someone such as a forensic psychologist, who serves more of an administrative function (an expert witness in court, for example).

Boness is a co-author of the study, “Examining Emotional Support Animals and Role Conflicts in Professional Psychology.” She worked with Jeffrey Younggren, a forensic psychologist and clinical professor at MU, and Jennifer Boisvert, who has a private practice in Beverly Hills, California.  Boness says she and Younggren are now working on their next research project, which is developing guidelines for mental health professionals who want to certify emotional support animals.

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